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Analysis of Poem "How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Updated on February 5, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning | Source

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and How Do I Love Thee?


How Do I Love Thee? is sonnet number 43 taken from The Sonnets From the Portuguese, a book first published in 1850.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning chose this title to give the impression that she had translated the work from the Portuguese and would therefore avoid any controversy. It was dedicated to her husband, poet Robert Browning.

But the work did cause a stir. For starters, the inspiration behind the work was Elizabeth's love for the man who had, for all intents and purposes, rescued her from a quietly desperate, reclusive lifestyle she led in London, following the accidental death of her closest brother.

Dominated by her possessive father, Elizabeth spent most of her time alone in an upstairs room. She was a frail, sick woman who needed opium and laudanum in an effort to cure her pain.

Her only consolation was poetry and at this she was very successful. When Robert Browning read her work he was so impressed he wrote asking to meet her. The two eventually fell in love and decided to secretly elope to Italy in 1846, despite the father's resistance and anger. He ended up disinheriting his daughter.

Elizabeth and Robert exchanged hundreds of love-letters over the two years from 1845-46. In them you get a clear idea of just how much they adored one another. Take this excerpt from Elizabeth in 1846, near the time of their elopement:

'For I have none in the world who will hold me to make me live in it, except only you - I have come back for you alone...at your voice...and because you have use for me! I have come back to live a little for you. I love you - I bless God for you - you are too good for me, always I knew.'

Elizabeth was close to 40 years of age when she broke free from the control of her father. You can imagine her pent up strength of feeling and sense of relief. She went on to give birth to a son and was happily married for sixteen years, until her death in 1861.

How Do I Love Thee? is her most well known sonnet. It has a female narrator which was highly unusual for the time.

How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)


How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I love thee freely, as men strive for right.

I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Analysis

This Petrarchan sonnet has fourteen lines, the first eight being the octet and the final six the sestet. At the end of the octet comes what is known as the turn, more or less a subtle change in the relationship between the two parts.

In this sonnet the octet is basically a list set in the present that reflects a very deep love; the sestet looks back in time and then forward to a transcendent love, which helps put the whole work into perspective.

The rhyme scheme is traditional - abbaabbacdcdcd - and the end rhymes are mostly full except for: ways/Grace and use/loose/choose. The full rhymes bring closure and help bind the lines together.

  • Iambic pentameter is dominant, that is, there are ten beats and five feet/stresses/beats to most lines, for example :

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

Line By Line Analysis

Lines 1-4

This sonnet helped kick-start many more on the theme of modern (Victorian) love, from a woman's perspective. Note the emphasis is on the repetition and reinforcement of the speaker's love for someone; there is no mention of a specific name or gender, giving the sonnet a universal appeal.

The first line is unusual because it is a question asked in an almost conversational manner - the poet has challenged herself to compile reasons for her love, to define her intense feelings, the ways in which her love can be expressed.

There then follows a repetitive variation on a theme of love. To me this conjures up an image of a woman counting on her fingers, then compiling a list, which would be a very modern, 21st century thing for a female to do.

This poem comes from another era however, a time when most women were expected to stay at home looking after all things domestic, not writing poems about love.

The second,third and fourth lines suggest that her love is all encompassing, stretching to the limits, even when she feels that her existence - Being - and God's divine help - Grace - might end, it's the love she has for her husband Robert that will sustain.

Note the contrast between the attempt to measure her love with rational language - depth, breadth, height - and the use of the words Soul, Being and Grace, which imply something intangible and spiritual.

Her love goes beyond natural life and man-made theology. These are weighty concepts - the reader is made aware that this is no ordinary love early on in the sonnet. The clause, lines 2-4, contains enjambment, a continuation of theme from one line to the next.

Is she suggesting that the simple notion of love for a person can soon flow into something quite profound, yet out of reach of everyday language and speech?

Lines 5-8

The speaker, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning continues with her passionate need to differentiate the many ways her love for her husband manifests. In line five she clearly tells the reader that, be it day or night, her love fills those quiet moments, those daily silences that occur between two people living together.

Her love is unconditional and therefore free; it is a force for good, consciously given because it feels like the right thing to do. She doesn't want any thanks for this freely given love; it is a humble kind of love, untainted by the ego.

Lines 9-14

The sestet starts at line nine. The speaker now looks to the past and compares her new found passions with those of the old griefs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had plenty of negativity in her adult life - she was mostly ill and lived like a recluse, seeing only old family friends and family.

Her father in particular oppressed her and wouldn't allow her to marry. There were no romantic relationships in her life by all accounts. She must have been driven to the point of willing herself dead. Little wonder that when Robert Browning came along she was given a new lease of life.

In contrast her childhood had been a happy one and it's this she refers to in the second half of line ten. A child's faith is pure and innocent and sees fresh opportunity in everything.

Turning to religious feelings in line eleven, the speaker refers to a lost love she once had for the saints - perhaps those of the christian church, of conventional religion. Or could she be looking back at the saintly people in her life, those she held in great regard and loved?

She suggests that this love has now returned and will be given to her husband. In fact so stirred up is she with these innermost feelings she goes on to say in line twelve, with just a dash to separate - this returned love is her very breath. Not only that, but the good and the bad times she's had, is having, will have - this is what the love she has is like. It is all enveloping.

And, in the final line, if God grants it, she'll carry on loving her husband even more after she dies.

So her love will go on and on, beyond the grave, gaining strength, transcendant.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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